Staying calm is a major aim of self-care but so is staying regulated which is maintaining enough in control of your body and emotions so as to not get overwhelmed to the point of feeling helpless in the first place. The following is a list of suggestions to work short (3-5 minute) breaks for mental health into your day. See the importance for taking breaks. Or visit the Science Behind Mental Health Breaks. A number of these are meant for those of us that work from home.
1. Connect to the world outside of work: Call, text, email, or Facetime a friend or family member because healthy connections facilitate safety and consequently regulation. There is literally an entire part of our nervous system that is responsible for social engagement. The specific nerve involved with our social engagement system influences our basic physiological functions, such as breathing and heart rate and is involved in our stress response process. Need stress relief? Phone a friend!
2. Move your body, stretch, and engage in rhythmic repetitive movements. If you happen to be a Dr. Bruce Perry fan, then you might know that activities incorporating rhythmic, repetitive movements are the gold standard for nervous system regulation. These types of movements (think walking, dancing, running, rocking/swinging, singing, tossing a ball from one hand to the other, etc.) or stretch, jog (a lap around the block or parking lot) or walk the dog (if you work from home) provide calming and relaxing stimulation to our sensory system and increase integration in our brains.
3. Drink water or herbal tea and have a healthy snack. Staying on top of hydration and nutrition throughout the day can go a long way in keeping your body and brain in an optimal state.
4. Do a quick loving kindness meditation. The researched benefits of this specific type of meditation are abundant: increased positive emotions and decreased negative emotions, reduction in self-criticism (if you are someone who deals with anxiety, this specific benefit will be invaluable), increased activation and activity in 2 main areas of the brain responsible for empathy and emotional attunement, improved social connections, and even relief from migraine pain.
5. Get into nature. Sit outside for 5 minutes. Have a picnic. Walk barefoot (in your backyard if its seasonally appropriate). Spend 5 minutes engaging your sensory system with everything you can observe around you. Nature positively impacts our mental health on all fronts: cognitions, mood, and emotions. There is no special activity or know-how required, just get outside.
6. Get grounded. Take inventory of your environment with your senses. What colors and shapes can see around you? Notice close up and far away sounds. Pay attention to smells or tastes you may be noticing and run your hand across a couple of different textures (your pants, hair, desk, etc). You know the zone out feeling that often happens when you’re sitting in a long meeting or college class? This can be as simple as feeling your feet against the floor, your back against your chair, and your hands rested on your legs. A quick grounding exercise can bring you back into your body. Becoming aware of where our body makes contact with the things around us helps keep us in the here and now.
7. Get creative. We live in a left-brain society and therefore frequently engage in left brain activities: reading, writing, logical problem solving, speech, comprehension, etc. You can work a mental health break into your day just by engaging your right brain with a creative or artistic activity. Doodle, create something, listen to music, daydream, engage in a mindful breathing exercise, watch cute animal videos, write without an agenda – set a timer for 3 minutes and just write whatever comes to mind. When we can engage in right brain activities, especially when still paying attention with our left brain, we increase integration in our brains.
8. Use positive self-talk. I know this one sounds silly, but it’s a great stress management tool and the extra cool thing about it involves our own capacity to change our brain in real time. Imagine the connections between brain neurons as bridges, and the more we use that bridge the stronger it becomes. So if we consistently tell ourselves positive things about ourselves, we create a strong brain bridge that in turn affects our self-image and our behavior. Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb helps us remember this concept with the phrase “cells that fire together, wire together.” If you’ve found a positive mantra that works for you and you consistently use it and feel a positive feeling afterward, you are creating a strong and efficient path to a quick mental health boost.
9. Use pressure in a good way. According to the Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of MN, our sensory system LOVES pressure. It’s both regulating in a calming way and increases our sense of safety and security. Try these simple ideas for a mental health break during your day: place your palms against the wall and take a couple of steps back like you are getting ready for a wall push up but just press against the wall instead of doing the full push-up; while seated in your desk chair, place your palms next to you on your chair and gently lift your body an inch out of your set for a few seconds; hold downward dog pose for a count of 10 (in your home office); sit on the floor and hug your knees to your chest with your arms wrapped tightly around your legs; take the stairs; push a heavy shopping cart through the store; squeeze clay or putty for a few minutes; wrap up in a weighted blanket (if you work from home); or give your arms and shoulders a quick self-massage. This is one where you can get creative…. Any way that you can give your joints and muscles deep pressure is going to be helpful here.